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The light of day and the thousand years

March 14, 2012

One of the keys to understanding the thousand years in Revelation 20 was provided by the apostle Peter, in his second epistle, where he wrote, “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” [2 Peter 3:8]

It remains for us to discover which day he meant. Was it the same as the time signified by John’s use of the figure of a thousand years in Revelation 20? Where else does the apostle Peter refer to a day? Earlier in the same epistle, he said:

2 Peter 1:18-19
We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

Peter wrote of darkness, and approaching dawn, and the light of prophecy, and the day star that rises up in our hearts, bringing in the full light of day, which represents a full understanding of the gospel, as Jesus described the righteous who “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” after the tares and things that offend are removed. [Matthew 13:43] Peter’s reference to light and darkness is metaphorical. Light signifies truth and knowledge, and darkness signifies error, or ignorance. The day, and the thousand years, in which believers reign with Christ is a time of spiritual enlightenment.

John Russell Hurd observed that there is no basis for the claims of those who insist that the thousand years of Revelation 20 is to be taken literally, saying “We have no warrant for maintaining the distinction, that the years are literal, but the days are figurative.” This is true. He wrote: [1]

But when all the other parts of a passage in this book are to be taken in a spiritual or figurative sense, we see no reason for making the expression a thousand years an exception to the general rule. There is no reason why the term thousand, or that of years, should not be as figurative as the terms chain, key, pit, be. In addition to this, we are to take into consideration the declaration of the mighty angel, (Rev. x. 7:) “There shall be time no longer;” and we have as good reason for applying this declaration to the term of one thousand years here, as we have had for applying it to the twelve hundred and sixty days. We have no warrant for maintaining the distinction, that the years are literal, but the days are figurative. So, on the other hand, if we were to consider the twelve hundred and sixty days, or forty-two months, as days of years, and months of thirty years each, by the same rule we should consider the period now under consideration as one of three hundred and sixty thousand years, instead of one thousand.

In the early centuries of the Christan age, belief in a literal millennium, or chiliasm is evident in works such as the Epistle of Barnabas, and Pseudo-Enoch, and the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Lactantius, and Victorinos.

According to several scholars, Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) was the person most responsible for reviving chiliasm amongst scholars in Germany in the 18th century. Bengel became famous for his edition of the Greek New Testament, and his commentaries. Franz Delitzsch wrote of him, “To whom else do we owe it, that the orthodox Church of the present time does not brand the Chiliastic view of the last times as a heterodoxy, as is done in almost all old manuals of dogmatics; but, on the contrary, has allowed it to enter into her innermost life, so that there is scarcely a believing Christian now, who does not take this view?” [2]

Johann Albrecht Bengel

Bengel insisted that the thousand years of Revelation 20 should be taken literally, and denounced those who disagreed with his interpretation. He wrote: “… he who embraces the Divine authority of the Apocalypse, must also of necessity admit the thousand years in some sense. … But there are some who, compelled by this Text, acknowledge that there is to be a remarkable and long-continued tranquility of the Church, and maintain this with impunity. How with impunity? On account of this one thing, that they remove from their mouth the thousand years which have proceeded from the mouth of God. It is of no advantage thus to alarm good men. But these thousand years do not run on even a step simultaneously with the times of the beast, nor do they altogether precede those times, but totally follow them.” [3]

Bengel struggled to overcome an odium that was connected with chiliasm, because of its condemnation in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, where it was referred to as a “Jewish opinion.” The 17th article included the paragraph:

Damnant Anabaptistas, qui sentiunt hominibus damnatis ac diabolis finem pænarum futurum esse. Damnant et alios, qui nunc spargunt Judaicas opiniones, quod ante resurrectionem mortuorum pii regnum mundi occupaturi sint, ubique oppressis impiis [eitel Heilige, Fromme ein weltlich Reich haben, und alle Gottlosen vertilgen werden].

“They condemn the Anabaptists who think that to condemned men and the devils shall be an end of torments. They condemn others also, who now scatter Jewish opinions, that, before the resurrection of the dead, the godly shall occupy the kingdom of the world, the wicked being every where suppressed [the saints alone, the pious, shall have a worldly kingdom, and shall exterminate all the godless].”

Events in the years 1533-1535 only seemed to confirm the pernicious nature of the doctrine of chiliasm. During that period the city of Munster in Westphalia was declared to be “new Jerusalem” after a group of Annabaptists gained control of the city council. Owen Chadwick described how Dutch prophet and ex-innkeeper, John of Leyden, was “proclaimed King of New Zion, wore vestments as his royal robes, and held his court and throne in the market-place. Laws were decreed to establish community of goods, and the Old Testament was adduced to permit polygamy. Bernard Rothman, once a man of sense, once the friend of Melanchthon, took nine wives.” Meanwhile, the Bishop of Munster collected an army and began the siege of the city. Chadwick described the events that followed: [4]

They now believed they had been given the duty and the power of exterminating the ungodly. The world would perish, and only Munster would be saved. Rothman issued a public incitement to world rebellion: ‘Dear brethren, arm yourselves for the battle, not only with the humble weapons of the apostles for suffering, but also with the glorious armour of David for vengeance…in God’s strength, and help annihilate the ungodly.’ An ex-soldier named John of Geelen slipped out of the city, carrying copies of this proclamation into the Netherlands, and planned sudden coups in the Dutch cities…. At last, on 25 June 1535, the gates of Munster were opened by sane men within the walls, and the bishop’s army entered the city. The cages where the corpses of Anabaptist leaders were hung are still hanging on the tower of St. Lambert’s Church.

Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg

Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg

Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg (1802-1869), Lutheran professor of theology at the University of Berlin, referred to Bengel in a remark about the benefits of studying the prophecies of Revelation, even if it was only partly understood. He wrote: [5] “it is wonderful, how the edifying power that resides in the book, forces its way even through the most imperfect understanding of its contents, if only the soul that applies to it is hungry and thirsty, weary and heavy laden, if it only stands in living faith on the divinity of Scripture and on the glorious consummation of the kingdom of Christ. Bengel’s example may render this quite manifest. In nearly all the leading points he has failed in obtaining the right view; and yet what rich nourishment has he derived from this book for his own inner man and for many thousands besides!” Hengstenberg rejected Bengel’s interpretation of the thousand years.

Additional light upon the meaning of the day to which Peter referred, that he associated with a thousand years in 2 Peter 3:8, comes from chapters 3 and 4 of the book of Hebrews, where the day of God’s sabbath of rest, and the saints entering and possessing the promised land are connected, both being symbolic of things into which the saints are encouraged to enter. The land that the saints possess is a better country, their spiritual inheritance, of which earthly Canaan was but a type and a shadow. It is entered into by belief, while the rest signified by the sabbath day requires us to labour. “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” [Hebrews 4:11-12] The labour involved seems to be labour in the study of the scriptures. Could this promise of rest, be the day, and the figurative thousand years, in which individual believers reign with Christ?

Nowhere does John say that Christ is to reign for a mere thousand years, as his reign is to be forever. But the time that individual saints reign with Christ, and when Satan is bound, is specific to each believer, and unique, and also limited. John mentioned that those who reign with Christ do not “worship the beast,” which suggests that to reign with Christ does not refer to wielding worldly power and authority. The “beast” is identified in Revelation 13, as a creature that comes out of the sea, and resembles a leopard, with the feet of a bear, and the mouth of a lion, whose power is given to him by the dragon. The animals mentioned are the same as those in the vision of Daniel 7, where they represent the worldly empires of Babylon, Persia, the hellenistic Greeks, and Rome. Thus, the beast of Revelation 13 is associated with the governments of the world, and human society at large, as elements of the ancient world powers are included in western civilization, which has come to dominate the world.

Those who reign with Christ, John said, do not worship the beast. The woman in Revelation 12:6, 14 flees to the wilderness, picturing her  escape from the world, and separation from it, as Peter said, the saints have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” He wrote: “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” [2 Peter 1:2-3]

The knowledge of God is something Peter encouraged believers to seek, and the privilege of reigning with Christ is certainly one of the “exceeding great and precious promises” that are available to them. This does not refer to our hope for a post-mortem  reward, but rather it applies now, in this present life, in which the saints are called to be a “royal priesthood.” Peter said, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” [1 Peter 2:9]

The sabbath day is a type of the rest into which the saints who reign with Christ enter. I suggest, John’s thousand years in Revelation also alludes to the sabbath day, which the saints enter by faith. It is not a literal thousand years, but represents the duration of the time in which believers enter into rest, and peace, obtaining the benefits of living by faith, dwelling in Christ. For them, the accuser, Satan, is bound, for they trust in the blood of the Lamb shed on their behalf. One possible reason the lives as saints reigning with Christ is represented by a thousand years could be that this is a foretaste of eternal life.

This interpretation views the thousand years as applying to individuals, throughout the church’s history, and so I refer to it as discrete millennialism. It is an alternative to the other categories of millennialism: premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism, each of which encounters contradictions, which have never been resolved.

References

1. Hurd, John Russell. Hyponoia or, Thoughts on a spiritual understanding of the Apocalypse. Leavitt, Trow & Co. NY. 1844. p. 503.

2. Franz Delitzsch, quoted in: Karl August Auberlen, Magnus Friedrich Roos: The prophecies of Daniel and the revelations of St John: viewed in their mutual relation, with an exposition of the principal passages. T. & T. Clark, 1856. p. 362.

3. Johann Albrecht Bengel. Gnomon of the new Testament, Volume 5 (1858). pp. 364-365.

4. Chadwick, Owen. The Reformation (New York: Penguin Books, 1997) pp. 190-191. [Quoted in Russell J. Dykstra: The Reformation’s Repudiation of Chiliasm]

5. Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg. Revelation Vol. 2: chaps. 13 – 22

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